In Her New York Times Op-Ed, Robin Black Calls Out Ageist Literary Awards

We all know that #weneeddiversebooks. But have you ever considered that that representation of a diverse audience needs to include not just race, economic background, and sexual identity; but it needs to consider age, as well?

This weekend, Robin Black wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “What’s So Great About Young Writers?”, that addresses the literary world’s heavy focus on celebrating young writers and relative neglect of older writers. Black, whose own two novels were published when she was 48 and 52, finds the slew of literary lists and awards lauding young writers — such as the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 — to be “outdated and discriminatory, even if unintentionally so.”

While Black understands this ageist issue to also be a “feminist issue,” the writer essentially believes that it’s “linked to privilege. Not everyone can afford to write when young,” she says. Many people in their 20s or 30s are busy raising children or working more than one job, so can’t afford the time it takes to write an award-worthy novel. Not to mention, too, that “age-based awards perpetuate the notion that there is a sanctioned norm for when one should get started in a career.”

"Diversity matters. Not only in what we look like, or what religion we practice, or in whom we love, but also in how we live our lives, including the order in which we go about things, the seasons in which we are able to create art.”

Ultimately, Black takes issue with the fact that the term “emerging writers” tends to be used interchangeably with “young writers.” “I was definitely an emerging author in my late 40s,” Black says. “And while I very much doubt that I would have been picked for any of those illustrious awards had I been eligible, it has frustrated me endlessly that I could not even lose on the merits of my work.”

Black doesn’t champion establishing a “5 over 50 or 9 over 90” list; rather, she believes that “the remedy is to take age out of the matter altogether, and focus on stage.” Remarkable first novels should be applauded regardless of the writer’s age; it’s the quality of the work that’s important, not whether the new writer is 25 or 65.